Purple gallinule, original watercolor by Scott and Stuart Gentling, 1982-85 (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas)

Purple gallinule, original watercolor by Scott and Stuart Gentling, 1982-85 (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas)

Scott and Stuart Gentling

DECEMBER 31, 2020

Scientist of the Day - Scott and Stuart Gentling

Scott and Stuart Gentling, twin Texan natural history artists, were born Dec. 31, 1942. They moved to Fort Worth from Minnesota as young boys and never left, except for their education in Philadelphia and trips to sketch and paint. They ran across the work of John James Audubon early on, and he became a major influence in turning their interests toward bird painting, although you would never confuse a Gentling bird watercolor with an Audubon. The brothers set out in the 1980s to publish a Texas version of Audubon's Birds of America. Between 1982 and 1985, they painted their way around Texas and ended up with forty large watercolors of Texas birds and 10 landscapes. The resulting book, Of Birds and Texas (1986), was pretty much self-published, as the Gentling brothers arranged for the photographing, color separation, and offset lithographic printing of their paintings and an accompanying text, which they wrote.

The text is as enjoyable to read as the lithographs are to view. The large (22" x 28”) leaves of plates and text lie in a sizable clamshell box; the total weighs in at just under 50 pounds, as my back discovered when I moved the library's set from its folio rack to a library table. The Library acquired its set just this year, and the prints are magnificent. We show here our copy opened to the text and plate discussing and showing the Flammulated Owl.

The painting has a lively backstory, told in the text. The brothers were camping in Big Bend National Park, near a bevy of academic birders who were looking for the flammulated owl, a small raptor only half a foot tall, and hard to spot. Scott and Stuart turned down an invitation to join in the search, preferring to stay in their camp. As it grew dark, they heard, while inside their tent, a bird gently hooting, went outside, and there in the beam of their flashlight, sat a flammulated owl, in a tiny tree to suit its tiny body. The birders never did see one. The Gentling’s got this painting. Here is a detail from our print that better shows off the little owl.

If you visit the U.S. State Department’s Art-in-Embassies website, you can see 13 more Gentling bird prints; click on the first one and then follow the arrow at right to easily view all 13. We show here one of these just below, the cattle egret.

The Gentling bird prints are exquisite, but a print can never measure up to an original watercolor. To see one of those, you will have to travel (when we can all travel again) to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, which has quite a few of the original paintings for Of Birds and Texas. Every now and then, they post one on their website, and I have collected these as they appear, which they did increasingly in 2019-20, when the museum mounted an exhibition honoring the Gentlings. The exhibition ended in March 2020, just as the pandemic began, so it was most people's last chance to see original Gentling paintings. Here we show the original watercolors for the purple gallinule (first image), Lichtenstein’s oriole (second image), and the mockingbird (fifth image)

If you go looking to buy a copy of Of Birds and Texas, be advised that the University of Texas Press issued a large-quarto-sized edition of the bird prints with the same title in 2001. This is a nice book, out of print, and commanding $300 on the used book market right now. But it is quite a different work from the large clam-shell, loose-sheet edition of 1986, which is very scarce, and if you can find one, very expensive, for a book that was printed just 34 years ago.

The Gentlings were exceedingly popular in Texas, especially in Fort Worth. In this photo, taken in 1986, Scott is in front; Stuart, with the beard, leans against the wall in the back. Stuart died in 2006, at the age of 64, and Scott in 2011, age 69, but the brothers remain popular. The Amon Carter Museum has recently established a Gentling Study Center in the museum, where researchers can consult the original paintings as well as manuscripts, drawings, and sketches. One hopes that when the pandemic subsides, they will again put the watercolors for Of Birds and Texas back on public display, and we can all go see them.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.